January 7, 2018
Epiphany, Pastor Lois Pallmeyer
Dear Friends in Christ, God’s grace and peace be with you. Amen
In the final scene of the latest Star Wars movie, The Last Jedi, we see young, unidentified children, speaking in a language we don’t recognize. I don’t want to provide too much of a spoiler, but let me hint at just this much: The children pick up random objects and use them to play the parts of long lost heroes. Through their play, even in a foreign language, they somehow inspire us to trust that the Force will not be defeated, even in an undefined future, even after unexpected losses and destruction. One of the kids leaves their enclosed space and points his prop at a distant star. Gazing at the light with wonder and possibility, the little child offers a glimmer of hope to faithful Star Wars fans and casual moviegoers alike[i].
What is it about the stars that inspire us to new hopes or expectations?
The magi in Matthew’s text[ii] are stargazers, too. They notice a bright new star in a distant land, and follow it to see what promise it holds.
I’m going to call them Wise Folks. After all, we don’t know that they were men. We don’t know that they were kings. They come from so far away we don’t even know their origin, only that they are from “the East,” where the sun rises, where God has from the beginning been bringing about a new day.
The text doesn’t say there were three of them, either. It’s plural, “magi” – so two at least. But when I hear that earlier passage from Isaiah[iii], it sounds like a whole lot more than two or three were expected. When Isaiah envisioned the nations coming to bring their blessing to his people, he described a multitude coming. So I like to imagine the magi being a whole crowd – dozens of wise folks, maybe 70 or so, men and women, too, scientists, astrologers, poets, philosophers, and the chefs and stable hands and camel trainers that would have accompanied them.
A whole entourage of wise people, drop in on Herod to see where the new monarch was reigning. They came because they believed something new was happening, that Divine Power was being unleashed in a new way in his community. No wonder he was afraid.
Have you ever wondered why no one else in the story seems to have recognized a new star in the sky? None of Herod’s staff seem to know it was there until the Easterners tell them about it. Maybe the light in the palace was so dazzling; they didn’t really take time to notice the stars. It’s not clear that Mary and Joseph were aware of the star, either. Maybe they were so in love with their new baby, or at least so exhausted by caring for him, that they hadn’t looked outside their doors.
Sometimes the brightness of our lives keeps us from looking into the night sky, prevents us from seeing what others are facing in the dark. But the holidays haven’t been bright for all of us. Across the world, refugees seek shelter and a place of safety. Paranoid world leaders still crack down on movements of reform or renewal. Storms rage and fires burn, sinking homes and familiar landscapes into icy waters.
Nearer to home, there is a sense of gloom for too many, too. Some of you spent the last few weeks trying to help friends deal with mental illness, while others have come to realize that loved ones have relapsed into addictive behaviors. Some have grown weary with the misdiagnoses of your diseases, and frustrated that the pain you’ve suffered has been taken so lightly by others. Older loved ones have felt shut in by the cold, and by their bodies’ growing weaknesses. The 50-something was told for the 20th time that his skills didn’t match the position being filled. Another learned that there are a few spots on the scan that will need more testing. And a few of you sat by the bedside, singing a loved one goodbye.
The despair and hopelessness may engulf us in sadness.
On the other hand, there’s something about a nighttime sky that finally allows us to see the stars. Maybe it takes travelers from distant lands to point something new shining through the darkness, a new brightness that longs to reign in the world. Maybe it takes an unfamiliar voice to remind us that something new is happening, that Divine Power is longing to be unleashed in a new way.
Surrounded by the fears and darkness of the night, Wise Folks from afar dare to dream, to look beyond the shadows to see what may still be promised to them. What if we trusted the idea that God was bringing about something new right now? New at Gloria Dei? New in our country? New in our lives?
Can we learn from the wisdom of the magi? What do these ancient stargazers teach us?
Remember that they weren’t familiar with the local prophecies. But something allowed them to trust that beyond their own traditions and knowledge, was truth worth discovering. They were willing to learn and grow in awareness. What would happen if we tried to follow their example? Are there new ideas to explore in this new year? New places to set your sights? New experiences to try?
Wise folks are not done learning; they don’t remain tied to old ideas, but admit that there is more in the world to learn and taste. They are open to questions, and inquiry and growth. Being wise means realizing we don’t know all there is to know.
Secondly, the wise ones knew to bring gifts. We hear of their exotic, extravagant gifts, treasures that they had accumulated, which they presented to this new enterprise. They brought gold, in recognition that a new realm was being established. They brought frankincense, the fragrance of sacred mystery, hinting that what was at work involved a power greater than their own, and myrrh, implying that even death couldn’t ultimately obscure the hope and the promise coming to life. They trusted that the gifts they had to give would be used in the coming realm, and they wanted to contribute.
But even beyond these exceptional offerings, the Wise Folks brought their own understandings and insights, their own perspectives and ideas to the new reign they are encountering.
Do we trust that we too have something to offer? Some of us have extravagant gifts to present; we make generous offerings of time or fortune. But if we are wise enough, we can believe that no matter who we are or where we’ve come from, we have energy, commitment, ideas, passion, warmth that could help to hold and promote the ideals and values of a new way. Maybe even our brokenness or despair, our familiarity with the nighttime sky could be a perspective or viewpoint we could lend.
Here’s what else makes those folks wise–they are willing to believe that the new ruler they seek may not be born in a palace. Yes, they look there first, but are overwhelmed with joy when they realize the mistake they had made. The child they find is in a small, ordinary home in Bethlehem, not in the fancy place. There they learn the name of this little one, born to average people of modest means, who lives a normal life, but is bringing about a whole new way of life. What is revealed to the wise folks is the power of the Holy One being unleashed in normal people, in regular places, in the middle of nowhere or anywhere.
Are the wise ones reminding us that God is not always found in the most elaborate or fanciest of explanations, but sometimes in the very ordinary ways we care for one another? Could God’s new reign in fact sometimes be revealed in the modest, simple ways we reach out to each other? When we help a friend struggling to make an appointment? When we do a load of laundry or shovel a sidewalk for someone who is suffering? When we call the person whose marriage is unraveling? When we visit the neighbor who can’t get out right now? When we sit down to eat lunch with the kid who is always alone, or join a table of people we haven’t met yet on Wednesday nights? Do we sense God’s presence when we hold another’s hopes for them, when their own despair is too hard for them to manage?
And one last thing – the Wise Ones know to follow the dreams that lead to peace, even if it means that they have to chart a new course. They are warned to resist the power of leaders who are afraid or reactionary, and to instead use a round-about way to return home.
Herod’s realm was shaped by the old power of empire: to snuff out dissent, to fear the new or the foreign, to even massacre the innocent if it could help him think he had complete control.
The Wise Folks were willing to trust a new direction, to look to the light of a new star, a way that offers hope in the darkness, a path that leads to gifts freely offered and received, a direction that catches the fragrance of the divine in the ordinary, and glimpses holy things like love and justice and forgiveness and reconciliation taking root in normal, common people and places and events.
Could we see the presence of God being born every time we too resist any power that is shaped by fear and control, every time we are wise enough to question fear or revenge, but look instead for what builds up the common good and the hopes of all?
In The Last Jedi, it is unknown children, speaking a new and unfamiliar language who point to a distant star and inspire hope. They utter the name of past heroes, and look to the promise of a new day.
In the gospel, it is unknown travelers who gaze into the night sky and discover God bringing about something new. They learn the name of a new child, and offer him gifts, sensing in him a vision of peace for all nations.
Where is God shining wonder and possibility in our lives today? Might we catch a glimmer of hope shining through the darkness? Might we too be wise enough to finally let it lead us home?
[i] James Grebey, December 27, 2017, “Who the Heck Was the Broom Kid at the End of ‘The Last Jedi’?” Inverse Brave New Worlds, http://www.inverse.com/article/39741-last-jedi-ending-force-broom-kid-temirlan-blaev-temiri-blagg
[ii] Matthew 2:1-12
[iii] Isaiah 60:1-6